Chapter 8. To the Argonne Forest


Gilbert H. Crawford
Thomas H. Ellett
John J. Hyland

Chapter 8
To The Argonne Forest

WHILE the 77th Division was engaged in the Vesle Sector, other Allied forces were likewise advancing on other fronts. From the North Sea to Rheims, limited offensives had been launched with gratifying success. The entire salient extending from Soissons through Chateau-Thierry to Rheims had been blotted out, largely by the aid of American troops; the British had attacked in force on 8th of August; and the French were "nibbling" at the western end of the Chemin des Dames.

On 12th of September, the American First Army, for the first time operating as an independent unit, began an attack on the St. Mihiel salient, east of Verdun. This salient which had been held by the Germans since 1914, was strongly defended. As a matter of fact, the enemy had planned in the Summer of 1918 to use it as a base for another attack on Verdun if their July 15th attack on Rheims proved successful. Notwithstanding the strength of the position, however, the salient was wiped out after two days fighting by the American forces; many prisoners were taken and much valuable material was captured. The 77th Division did not participate in this battle, because still engaged north of the Vesle.

This brilliant first offensive by the Americans had been planned for some time by the General Staff, but was executed under peculiar difficulties. As late as 2nd of September, Marshal Foch had gone to Chaumont (American General Headquarters), and had placed before General Pershing the plans for the general attack, which was to begin 26th of September and was to extend from the North Sea to the Meuse River. He requested General Pershing to cancel the arrangements for the St. Mihiel battle. Preparations were so far advanced, however, that it was finally agreed that a change of plan would not be advisable. Marshal Foch, therefore, permitted the attack to be made according to schedule, with the understanding that the objectives would be limited. This accounts for the non-exploitation of the initial St. Mihiel success.

In accordance with these secret orders (2nd of September), the American Commander-in-Chief had to make plans for the battle set for 26th of September-which proved to be the great final battle of the war-before knowing the outcome of the St. Mihiel offensive which was set for 12th of September. Under the circumstances, it was difficult to predetermine the number of troops which would be available for the later battle. Contrary to expectation, the St. Mihiel engagement was consummated with comparative ease, and with relatively few casualties, so that practically all the American divisions that participated in the 12th of September battle were also available for the 26th of September.

When preparing for the great battle of the 26th of September, General Pershing summoned practically all the American divisions then in France, except the 27th and the 30th, which were in Flanders with the British. It was for this reason that the 77th Division was transferred directly from the Vesle to the Argonne Forest, without any rest after its strenuous activity from 10th of August to 13th of September on the Vesle front.

On the evening of the 15th of September the Regiment marched from the vicinity of Mareuiel-en-Dole, south through the Forest de Nesle, Nesle, Coulonges to the woods near Villers-Agron-Aiguizy. In these peaceful woods, far to the rear of the fighting lines, the Regiment rested until the evening of the 17th of September. Then, crowded into French motor trucks, the men were transported, during the cold, rainy night of 17th-18th of September through Epernay, and Chalons-sur-Marne to Verrieres, a few kilometers south of historic St. Menehould. Verrieres was reached during the day of the 18th of September. This quiet little village of wooden shacks was located on the western edge of the Foret d'Argonne many miles south of the battle line. The Regiment still labored under the delusion that there was to be a rest, so orders were sent forth for a general "clean-up" and drill, the latter consisting of practice reconnaissance in the woods.

The Forest of the Argonne, where so much of the history of the American Army in France was enacted, is a narrow forest running from Grand Pre on the north, about fifty kilometers, nearly due south to Villers-en-Argonne. The front line for four years had roughly bisected this forest, running nearly due east and west, just south of Varennes and Binarville. Where it was held by the Germans, the forest was nowhere more than four or five miles wide. The Aire River bounded the forest on the east, and the Aisne on the west. Hills ran the length of the forest between these two rivers, a main ridge running through the center from north to south, with numerous ravines on either side emptying into the river valleys.

From 1914 to 1918, both French and Germans had strongly fortified the naturally difficult terrain. Mine warfare had flourished in this region as late as 1916, but in September, 1918, the area was considered "quiet", and troops were sent there for their "rest" periods.

In the plans for the great battle about to begin, the American Army had been assigned to the front from the Meuse River, west to and including the Argonne Forest-a front of about twenty miles. The forest itself was to be attacked by the 77th Division and the left brigade of the 28th Division (Pennsylvania National Guard). Thus it came about that the 77th Division was to form the left flank of the entire American Army. To the west came the French divisions.

In order completely to surprise the enemy, great care was taken to conceal the arrival of the Americans behind the lines which were then held by the French. Movements were made at night only, even when taking place far to the rear. The 302nd Engineers marched into the front line sector on the night of the 20th of September, and during the following day relieved the French engineer troops. This relief consisted in taking over the various mines which the French had long before prepared against the possibility of a retirement. In several places the main north and south road from Les Islettes had been heavily mined by the French. Engineer details were placed in charge of each of these works with instructions to fire the mines in case of retirement, which fortunately never took place. On the contrary, the Boche engineers, during the ensuing six weeks, had to fire innumerable road mines to impede the Allied advance.

When the Regiment assumed its new duties, all seemed at peace in the beautiful forest. The weather was still good; scarcely a shot was heard. The war seemed far away. From the 20th to the 26th of September, little or no work was done by day. Even important reconnaissances were not made for fear that the Germans might discover that the Americans had arrived in force, and would then suspect that an attack was to be made. In order to insure the deception of the enemy, a thin fringe of French infantry outposts were left to repulse enemy raids.

During the night, however, all was activity for the engineers. Parties of officers scouted the front lines to become familiar with the ground. Stores and tools were carried forward, mostly by hand.

One very important mission that was accomplished by the Regiment prior to the big attack was the cutting of the wire in front of the Allied trenches. Picked details from the different companies worked during two nights cutting these lanes, so that the infantry would not be impeded at the beginning of the advance. This was hazardous work, but because -of the general quietness of the sector, it was successfully completed without casualties.

The following report of Major Per-Lee, dated 24th of September, describes vividly the front and the engineer activities just before the beginning of the battle of 26th of September:

Headquarters, 302nd Engineers,
American AEF, Sept. 24, 1918.
From: The Commanding Officer, 1st 13n. 302nd Engrs.
To: The Commanding Officer, 302nd Engineers.
Subject: Reconnaissance of the RAVINE des COURTE CHAUSSE.
1. In company with Captains Howry, Harder and Lieutenant Macqueron and thirty-two men from the 1st Bn. we explored this ravine from a point not quite up to PIERRE CROISEE at co-ordinates 00.7-268.98.
2. The ROUTE MARCHAND is of no use excepting for men on foot or very light vehicles and then only up as far as 99.4-268.7; the lower end of ROUTE MARCHAND is nothing but a pair of tracks deep in the mud dwindling to a goat trail at the eastern or upper end of the ravine.
3. Acting under your instructions we laid out eight wire cutting parties of four men each under the direction of two sergeants-now acting lieutenants. Captain Howry took the left half of the 153rd Brigade Sector with wire-cutting parties numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4, the centres of which are approximately at the following points: 1: 297.4-268.8; 2; 297.7-268.85; 3; 297.95-268.85; 4; 298.4-268.8. These paths cut through the French wire range in general from MARCHAND ROAD up to and in some cases beyond line of the French outpost pickets or extreme outpost line.
4. Captain Harder took the right of the 153rd Brigade Sector with wire-cutting details 5, 6, 7, and 8, located as follows: 5; 298.8-268.8; 6; 299.5-268.75; 7; 299.75-268.8; 8; 300.15-268.9.
5. With the exception of 5, these cuttings were made directly up over the hill through the French wire at the points described to ap-proximately the extreme outpost or picket line.

6. No. 5 runs from RAVINE SEC to the crest of the hill between PPs 34 and 35.
7. While we made these cuttings as ordered it was apparent that very large numbers of troops could be taken up to the extreme out post lines and the numerous spur trenches with which they are surrounded, and that the wire-cutting could be taken up from the outpost lines across No Man's Land, to the German trenches without hindering the bringing up of men.
8. The RAVINE COURTE CHAUSSE and the RAVINE SEC, which is the small ravine running northwest from MARCHAND TUNNEL, lend themselves very favorably to the bringing in and dispersing of troops throughout the 153rd Brigade Sector with practically little or no possible observation from the Germans.
9. In my opinion, if French guides were assigned to the various, units concerned, platoons, companies, and regiments could, with little difficulty, be dispersed on the French outpost lines even on a very dark night and if there was a little moon, very easily.
10. The thirty-two men of the 1st Bn. Engineers now assigned to the wire-cutting details could, in a manner, help, as guides, but as their
experience in the place has been of a few hours duration, too much should not be asked of them. There are several routes of bringing troops across and into the RAVINE DES COURTE CHAUSSE, the best one seems to be the boyau COLONIAU which runs from the RAVINE GOURAUD-south entrance at point 299.95-267.9-, its northern terminal point is on the crest of the hill at the outpost lines. It crosses the ROUTE MARCHAND at 299.02-268.6. It is a very deep, fine, trench almost completely duckboarded throughout, and troops can file through it very rapidly, as a path leads from this trench on the bottom of the RAVINE VOURTE CHAUSSE which leads almost directly to the MARCHAND TUNNEL 400' west. The MARCHAND TUNNEL is very close to the centre of the Brigade Sector, from this point; well protected and concealed; troops can be dispersed either east or west or north.
11. There are two other boyaus: BLAINVILLE and MARCHAND,
but I am not familiar with them. Also troops can be brought into the RAVINE DES COURTE CHAUSSE from the la CHALADE and FOUR
de PARIS ROAD. However, this road is enfiladed from the German positions and after the ROUTE MARCHAND branches off from it, it is as above described, very muddy and in very poor condition. I visited three extreme outpost positions: 34, 35, 36, which are almost directly north of the MARCHAND TUNNEL. I found the routes up to the positions all entrenched in good condition, splendidly concealed by high grass on both banks. However, the positions themselves do not give a very extensive view-perhaps fifty yards and in some cases Possibly one hundred can be seen in advance of these positions. I was told that PP 34 was in sight from the German positions so I climbed over the top and walked a few feet forward where I was blocked by a chaos of trench, chevaux de frise, and the most amazing barricades of wire that I ever have seen.
12. The trenches seem to lead entirely across the crest of the hill and where the French could not make further use of them they blocked them with heavy wooden doors and filled the trenches forward with chevaux de frise and loose barb wire.
13. None of our men were fired upon nor as far as we could determine was our presence known to the enemy. I am supported in my opinion that the place to start the wire cutting is from the extreme outpost line, by the concurring opinions of Captains Harder an(I Howry, and Lieutenant Macqueron of the French Army.

Major, Engineers U. S. A. Comdg. 1st. Bn.

As' the time drew near for the attack, the Regiment received its orders, which were briefly:
1. To have platoons with the advancing infantry, and 2. To build roads across No Man's Land.
The details of these orders are shown in the following "Annex No. 1, Field Order No. 43". From a casual reading of this order it is obvious that the equipment which each man was required to carry was exceptionally heavy. Indeed, it is doubtful if troops advancing into battle were ever before in the world's history, handicapped with such a burden. Had it not been for their light-heartedness they could never have staggered forward at all. As matter of fact, before the advance actually began, the men managed to rid themselves of much of this material.

To Accompany Field Order No. 43


1. MISSION--(,t) To provide routes of advance for the Infantry and Artillery. (b) To furnish Engineer material for all troops at the most advanced points and at the earliest possible moment after H hour. (c) To de gas and rid of traps all eaves and dugouts. (d) To destroy or nullify and mark all enemy mines.

2. (a) The 1st Battalion, 302nd Engineers, plus 1 battalion, 53rd Pioneers (less 1 1/2 companies) under command Major Per-Lee. 302nd Engineers, will advance in the zone of the right brigade and will be responsible for Engineer operations in this zone.
(b) The 2nd Battalion 302nd Engineers and 1 1/2 companies 53rd Pioneer Infantry under command of Capt. F. S. Greene, 302nd Engineers, will advance in the zone of the left brigade and will be responsible for engineer operations in this zone. Three Platoons will be assigned to accompany each front line battalion under the order of the battalion commander. It will lie the duty of these platoons to open up four (4) routes over the trenches and wire of our own defenses and those of the enemy, for each of the 4 Infantry regiments, file remainder of the Engineers, assisted by the Pioneer Infantry, will provide two (2) routes for the Artillery in each brigade zone, working in close liaison with Artillery regimental commanders.

3. ADVANCE DUMPS, ETC.-Advance dumps will be established ;It la CHALADE (7.8-6.7) for the East Zone, and at 5.3-8.9 for the West Zone. The Regimental Supply Officer will procure the necessary materials, which will be moved to these localities by the Regimental Transport Officer, using Engineer Train and Regimental Transport. battalion commanders will keep Infantry and Artillery commanders informed of the tools and materials in these dumps available for use.

4. EQUIPMENT TO BE CARRIED-Each enlisted man will carry rifle and bayonet and 50 rounds of ammunition, or pistol and ammunition; canteen filled with water, tea, or coffee, three days' rations. Each squad of the advance element will carry:

(This bridge will be taken up on will be carried by the platoon.)
Three motor trucks on each of the four artillery roads will be taken forward as close in rear of the advance Infantry as possible and along with our rear elements. These trucks will be taken as far forward as possible without blocking the Artillery at point where limbers and guns can be taken over but trucks cannot. They will there be moved clear of the road, thus forming a more advanced mobile dump of Engineer materials.

6. Motor trucks will. be loaded as follows:
10 Long charges 15-ft. length, 1 Hand pile-driver, 3-man
25 Round pine poles (4 to 6 in.) 50 Shovels
20 Pieces 3-in. lumber 25 Picks
100 Ft. of I in. rope 10 Axes
I Small coil smooth wire 50 Wire cutters
30 Small lashings 10 Pliers
10 Heavy hammers I Keg nails
10 Light hammers 1 Keg spikes
6 Mauls
25 Round pine poles 20 Pieces 3-in. timber
2 Wheel-barrows 1 Barrel chloride of lime
1000 Sandbags

7. Limber tool wagons will be taken as far forward before H hour as possible, on each Artillery road, and will be moved clear of the road. One limber tool wagon will follow on each road immediately after the trucks. Remaining limber tool wagons will follow immediately after the Artillery across No Man's Land.
The Regimental G. S. limber wagons, loaded with men's packs, rations, forage, and cooking utensils, will follow tool wagons.
Remainder of Regimental Transport and horse-drawn section of Engineer Train will await orders at billets, ready to move.
8. Battalion Commanders will make arrangements to mark all drinking water points and all water points for watering horses on the advance. A supply of signs will be furnished Battalion Commanders for this purpose by this office.

9. The Headquarters Company will move the lighting plant forward with each advance of the Division P. C., which will be kept lighted at all times.

10. The Lieutenant- Colonel, Captain Topographer, Regimental Adjutant, Sergeant-Major, two stenographers, and liaison group, will accompany the Regimental Commander to each succeeding P. C. The reproduction and drafting sections and the remainder of the Headquarters Company, under command of the Regimental Supply officers will continue in its present location until further orders.

11. The Camouflage Officer will proceed forward with the Regimental Commander and will have his P. C. with Regimental Headquarters. He will maintain liaison with Artillery units and will arrange to have ample camouflage materials in the advanced Divisional Engineer dumps, available for use.

12. LIAISON-Advance elements will report to Battalion Commanders once each hour, conditions and location, reciting any special features. Battalion Commanders will similarly report to the Regimental Commander each two hours, forwarding reports of advance elements. Regimental Headquarters at H hour and until further orders will be at the Division P. C.

It was known that the space between the lines was literally covered with jungles of barbed wire. Entire reliance was not placed on the cutting of this wire prior to the " jump off". Explosive charges, called "pipe torpedoes", were, therefore, prepared. To Co. "A" was assigned the task of making these torpedoes, under the supervision of Captain Howry and Master Engineer Fitzgerald. The torpedoes consisted of two-inch pipe filled with TNT. When one of these was exploded in a belt of wire, the wire absolutely vanished and with it, the pickets and everything else that was near at hand, leaving a wide path through the tangle. The great difficulty was to transport these dainty weapons in safety and to explode them where needed.

In addition to the torpedoes, the men of the Headquarters Company prepared some nets made of chicken-wire, which were designed to be thrown across the barbed wire belts, over which it was then possible to scramble without great difficulty. Again the main problem was to transport these bulky nets to the sections where they were most needed. History does not record that either the torpedoes or the nets were used to any great extent.

Behind the lines all was strenuous activity and hurried preparation. The concentration of artillery had never been equalled. No sooner was the Divisional Artillery in position, then up came the Corps and Army Artillery, with some attached French battalions. No pity was to be shown to "Jerry"-he had a right to dread what was in store for him!

To the wise, the word was passed around that this was to be the heaviest assault ever undertaken by the Allied forces. At last the date, and then the time, of the "H" hour was announced. Over the top at 5:30 A. M., 26th of September! Hours before that time, the French Artillery to the left began to boom thunderously. Then the American guns took up the bombardment. There was scarcely any return fire from the enemy. A very heavy fog covered the ground. Although, on the whole, this was a great advantage to the attackers, it increased the difficulty of orientation in the forest, and was a source of great annoyance to the men.

Except for the inevitable difficulties of advancing through the tangled mass of wire, the labyrinth of trenches, and other natural obstacles, there was little opposition to the attack. Everywhere the enemy trenches were deserted. The American Infantry never made an attack against less enemy resistance. If the Germans had stood their ground in the strong fortifications of the forest, the advance through the Argonne would have cost the 77th Division a much greater loss of life than it actually sustained. As matter of fact, the Boches hastily fled at each point of attack, and it was not until reserves were brought up that a stand was finally made. By that time, the fortified trenches had been captured, and the advantage of position had been lost. Before the end of the first day's battle, the enemy retained only the natural advantage of being on the defensive.

Thus it was, that by early afternoon of the 26th, the Divisional objective was reached; the enemy had been routed out of his carefully prepared fortifications into the open woods. The first step of clearing the forest had been accomplished with few casualties.

The Engineers w e r e also active during these momentous hours. Co.'s "A", "C", "E", and "F" advanced with the attacking infantry, explored dugouts, in marked trails, and in general made themselves useful whenever there was engineering work to be done during the advance.

The road work to be done had been assigned to Co. "B" and Co. "D". It was planned to have two artillery routes in each brigade sector. In the eastern sector, the map showed a secondary road leading from the demolished village of Le Four de Paris diagonally across the forest to Varennes, which was behind the German lines. This road was to be repaired by Co. "B". In the sector allotted to Co. "D" was the Vienne le Chateau-Binarville Road. These two roads were the only available routes in front of the whole Division, and the latter road at its northern end was outside of the divisional boundaries. Because of the rugged nature of the ground, it was not possible to construct new roads in time to be of use. The map also showed an unimproved earth road in the eastern sector called the Haute Chevauchee, which wound its way northward along the heights of the forest. The task of making this road passable was also assigned to Co. "B".

To open up these three artillery roads across No Man's Land was no mean task for two companies of engineers. Luckily, at the last minute before the attack, three companies of the 53rd Pioneers were attached to the Regiment to assist in this work.

Aided by several hundred negro troops of the317th Engineer Regiment, who also arrived at this critical time as if by magic, the road-building operations of Co. "B" proceeded much more rapidly than had been anticipated. The Four de Paris Road was opened for traffic by 7:00 P. M., 26th of September, long before it could be used. On this road alone, where it passed through No Man's Land, were the following obstructions: Fifteen distinct wire entanglements, 7 deep trenches, 4 barricades, 1 mine crater 125 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep; 1 other large crater, and many shell holes and small unexploded road traps, as well as 1 concrete "pill box".

The work on the Four de Paris Road was accomplished by the 1st and 4th Platoons of Co. "B", under the supervision of Lieutenant Weston and Sergeant 1st Class Jorgensen, aided by three platoons of the 53rd Pioneers and several companies of the 317 (colored) Engineers. One of the latter companies was commanded by Lieut. T. G. Townsend, ex-Co. "A". This road was of vital importance during the Battle of the Argonne, as it was the only stone road leading into the forest from the southern end. Traffic from several divisions continually used it.

During the heavy bombardment extending over four years, the Haute Chevauchee Road had been literally blasted from the face of the earth. It was not even possible to trace this road, so complete had been its destruction. A new road had to be traced connecting the north and south ends. With the material then available it was possible only to make a soft road by filling in the old trenches and shell holes with earth. By noon of 27th of September this road was ready for light animal-drawn traffic. It was never in condition to be used for heavier traffic. Had it been possible to plank this road, it would have served as an excellent one -way route for the traffic of two divisions-the 77th and the 28th

The work on the Haute Chevauche Road was done by the 2nd and 3rd Platoons of Co. "B", under command of Lieutenant Romeo, assisted by three platoons of the 53rd Pioneers. Troops from the 28th Division, and a number of colored corps troops also worked on this road.

In the meantime, Co. "D", under command of Captain Simmons, were engaged on the very difficult and dangerous mission of repairing the Vienne le Chftteau-Binarville Road. During the afternoon the 26th of September, a reconnaissance was made by Major Giesting and Captain Simmons. From the old French line across No Man's Land, the road-bed had been practically wiped out by shell fire and trenches. During the reconnaissance it was observed, however, that the road continued back of the German lines, and was there in good condition. Actual work began on this road on the 27th of September. The usual obstacles were encountered: quantities of wire entanglements shell holes, trenches, mud, etc.

On the 28th this road had been repaired up to the German support trenches, where a narrow-gauge railroad had been operated by the enemy. At this point, under the direct supervision of Lieut. J. F. Brown, a 30-foot bridge was built. The erection of this bridge was carried on under machine gun and artillery fire. Throughout all these operations the men were almost constantly under direct enemy observation, especially the carrying parties who packed the heavy bridge timbers on their shoulders down the road in full view of the Boches, for about a kilometer. This bridge was completed on the 29th, and the next day was strengthened so as to carry heavy traffic.

As the advance progressed, Co. "D" continued work on this road, and on 1st of October erected a bridge over a tank trap south of Binarville. The French, as well as the American divisions used this road.

The great final battle of the War had commenced. Everywhere, from the North Sea to the Meuse, the Allies were attacking. The American Army was the right flank of the Allied forces. Much depended upon its strength and success, for its task was to smash the "hinge" of the German defense. Its ultimate object was to break the four-track railway running from Mezieres to Sedan. This railway was about forty miles north of the "jump off" on the 26th of September. It was a most important route for supplies as it connected the German armies in the east with those in Flanders. If this line were broken, the enemy would be compelled to retire from Northern France and part of Belgium.

Everyone realized that this was no easy task, and no one anticipated, on that foggy morning of late September that it would be accomplished so quickly. It may be interesting to recall here that in the advances that were to take place, the 77th Division gained more ground than any other American division. Every foot of the territory from le Four de Paris to the Meuse at Remilly was conquered by the 77th Division. It therefore seems probable that the302nd Engineers accomplished more in the way of road- repair, bridge-building (both foot and artillery), construction and repair of light railways, and encountered more road demolitions than any other American regiment. How ever that may prove to be, the fact remains that the Regiment was constantly at the front, often with detachments in advance of the Infantry, and always at its work of IMPROVING COMMUNICATIONS-the primary function of pioneer engineer troops
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